On a recent weeknight at G Boutique, a Bucktown lingerie shop and sex-toy emporium, Rachel Shteir, associate professor and head of the dramaturgy and dramatic criticism program at DePaul, was dressed in patent leather heels and lacy black stockings, a red bra winking out from underneath her camisole and bright teal blazer. She was there to sign copies of her first book, Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show, before Michelle “Toots” L’amour’s monthly burlesque workshop, which that night would draw about 15 women looking to pick up a few moves. The workshop’s popularity and the booming interest in burlesque at large might suggest that Shteir has slipped into a well-lubed market, but her book’s actually been in the works for 15 years, none of them spent undressing onstage. “I’m a writer, not a doer,” she said, and explained that she couldn’t stay for the workshop, as she had to get to an interview she was doing for an article she’s working on for Playboy–about strippers, natch.
Shteir got interested in stripping in 1990, while she was doing graduate work at the Yale School of Drama, when she visited a New Haven strip club, a small, dark, “really skanky” joint with a pool table. She went to see an acquaintance known variously as Jane, Wendy, and Wednesday, who had started stripping on the side and soon would drop out of school to strip full-time. Shteir shared Jane’s upper-middle-class background and was intrigued by her decision to swap an academic lifestyle for the chance to take off her clothes onstage. The club’s sole female patron, she felt nervous and conspicuous that night, but it wouldn’t be her last trip.
After she’d been back a few times, she wrote about the scene at the club for a critical-writing class. The piece differed from her classmates’ work–“people would bring in stuff about Shaw and Albee,” she says–but her professor liked it and encouraged her to continue writing on the subject.
She wrote her dissertation on five female burlesque performers, but shifted gears afterward to research Victorian women travelers in the Middle East, a subject she’d been thinking about since living in Tunisia in the mid-80s. The subject appealed to her for much the same reason that stripping did: the women were reinventing themselves, just in “a different set, different costumes.” She published a few essays on travelers but after a year, she says, “no one was interested in it as a book.” So she turned back to her burlesque research.
“I never thought the burlesque thing would turn into anything,” she says. “But it seemed like there would be a place for it on the shelf. When you went to the bookstore to look under ‘History of Striptease,’ there was nothing there!” Striptease, published in October by Oxford University Press, is the first comprehensive history of the genre–though Jessica Glasscock’s briefer study, Striptease: From Gaslight to Spotlight, was published in 2003, and Michelle Baldwin’s chronicle of the form’s revival, Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind, came out earlier last year.
Shteir is interested in the golden age of striptease–roughly the 1920s through the ’60s–in part because it’s now obsolete. “There can never be a time when we can go back to teasing as a part of the culture,” she says, “because we’ve superseded the point of teasing. Now, we have porn, we have strip clubs, and teasing no longer has that power.”
The old-fashioned striptease, argues Shteir, was a quintessentially American form of entertainment akin to rock ‘n’ roll. Descended from burlesque and vaudeville–both rooted in comedy–striptease was distinguished from erotic spectacles in other countries largely by the doses of humor accompanying the sexual displays, or, as Shteir puts it, by the way it “tossed laughter and desire into the air.” By making a career of it, women were simply tapping into the American dream. “They exceeded their circumstances,” she says, “and to me it’s impressive when anyone does that. Being American, at its best, is exceeding your circumstances in some way; it’s not accepting what’s handed down to you.”
Shteir’s book–which landed a review by Francine du Plessix Gray in the February 28 New Yorker–is an exhaustive chronicle of the rise and fall of striptease, covering its growth as an industry, its ties to other forms of entertainment, its representation by journalists, and the skirmishes it sparked between burlesque impresarios and various arbiters of moral values. An entire chapter is devoted to New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s crackdown on burlesque in the late 1930s, and on every other page, it seems, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice is tussling with the Minsky brothers, who channeled their business savvy into burlesque theaters in NYC and, later, Las Vegas. It all makes for good reading, especially in light of our current administration’s chumminess with the Parents Television Council, but her focus on the politics of the biz draws attention away from the all-American women who were its bread and butter.
She gets closest to her subjects when she turns to two stars of the golden age, Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee. Rand, the notorious fan dancer who got her start in Chicago at the 1933 World’s Fair, comes across as an indefatigable entrepreneur. She suffers losses and picks herself up from them repeatedly, a regular “robber-baroness” of the Depression era. Gypsy Rose Lee made a name for herself as the “Literary Stripper” with a routine that, though full of self-mockery, cleverly referenced the literati of the day. She went on to write The G-String Murders, a mystery novel that in 1941 was second only in sales to The Thin Man (though many critics pooh-poohed it as an “attention-getting novelty,” which was, Shteir writes, “not far from the truth”), as well as several short stories for the New Yorker.
And yet, Striptease isn’t a glossy paean to the triumphs of strong-minded women. Reinvention of any sort, as a stripper or otherwise, doesn’t guarantee self-improvement, despite what the popular myth might have us believe, and to her credit the author never pretends otherwise. “I try really hard not to romanticize their lives,” she says.
Shteir, who admits she’s skeptical of the argument that sex work can be empowering, says that she’s been surprised by how, at her readings, young women constantly approach her for advice on starting their own burlesque troupes: “The idea that wearing a vinyl bustier is a part of feminism was simply not part of the ideology as I was coming up.” And in any case, it’s not advice she feels qualified to give, beyond cracking that they should “buy my book.” At the G Boutique workshop earlier this month, several novice strippers did just that.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.